English: Photo of the sinistral shell of Achat...
English: Photo of the sinistral shell of Achatina fulica. Locality: Mauritius. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At one time banks and post offices used to tie down the pen that they provided for people to sign things, such as cheques, with a piece of string or chain to prevent customers from stealing the pens. These days you are more likely to have a bunch of pens (with the bank’s logo) pressed on you.

Anyway, I was always discomforted by these tied down pens as I am left-handed and the string or chain was always fixed to the right of the counter and rarely was long enough for me to easily sign my cheques with left hand. As a result I was cramped up and twisted round as I manoeuvred the cheque book closer to the right hand side.

Double Helix
Double Helix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is only one of the many times that my sinistralism has left me disadvantaged. Corkscrews and scissors, even power tools, wood screws and nuts and bolts are all designed for the majority who are right-handed. (I believe that the correct term would be dextralist). Can openers are the things that I find most tricky to use.

However, sinistralists living in a dextral world soon learn to use right handed tools, to at least some level of competence. There are tools made specifically for left-handed people and it is quite funny to give one to a right-hander. They don’t have a clue! This is because they have not had to learn to use tools with a sinistral configuration, whereas a sinistral has at least a level of competence with right-handed tools since they are everywhere.

English: A modern pair of MMA Gloves Open Fingered
English: A modern pair of MMA Gloves Open Fingered (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Universe obviously has a basic chirality or handedness which is a bit odd to say the least. It’s interesting to wonder why chirality exists. Is it just so that we can easily remove corks from bottles of wine? “Thanks, Deity, that just what we needed. Will you take a glass?”

Chirality makes it hard for some creatures. Imagine that you are a mollusc with  a left-coiled shell and all the other mollusc are right-coiled. You’d find partners to be rare. Of course, it can’t make reproduction too difficult or the left-coiled molluscs would become extinct within a generation or so. (That’s probably too simplistic, but let’s not quibble).

Bromochlorofluoromethane as an example of a ch...
Bromochlorofluoromethane as an example of a chiral molecule. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chirality allows us to have streams of traffic travelling both ways on a single road, but I’m sure that Deity would have considered that and arranged for some way that we could duplex our highways. Allowing a way for solid matter to inter-penetrate would be one, but perhaps “both directions” implies chirality anyway and in a non-chiral universe there would only ever be one way.

In some universes (and maybe in this one for all I know) there may be cases of even more complex situations. One reflection of a chiral object changes it into another object that can’t be superimposed on the original object. A second reflection does allow it to be superimposed on the original. Imagine a universe where three or more reflections are need to allow the superimposition! In that universe the motorways and autobahns would need at least three carriageways.

English: A40 at Whitchurch looking eastwards V...
English: A40 at Whitchurch looking eastwards View of both carriageways of the A40 looking eastwards from a vantage point on the road bridge in Whitchurch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The spin of some sub-atomic particles has an interesting spin characteristic. The linked Wikipedia article says in one place:

However, if s is a half-integer, the values of m are also all half-integers, giving (−1)2m = −1 for all m, and hence upon rotation by 2π the state picks up a minus sign.

Rotation through 2π is a rotation through 360 degrees. So a particle with a spin of ½ turns into its mirror reflection on one full rotation. At least I think that’s what that means. Two full rotations and it is back to its original orientation (or at least, its original spin value).

Spin-Flip (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the macro world two reflections of an object create an image that can be superimposed on the original. That means that if you look at the reflection of your reflection you see yourself as others see you rather than your mirror image. You are so much more used to seeing your reflection that it can be difficult to comb your hair while looking at a doubly reflected image of yourself.

Chiral objects are not symmetrical. Reflections of symmetrical objects can be superimposed on the original object however (after being moved and turned). Symmetry and asymmetry are part of the fabric of the universe that we live in and I think that having both allows for much more complexity in our universe than would be possible in a universe without the symmetry/asymmetry dichotomy.

Volvo fire engine of the "Bedfordshire an...
Volvo fire engine of the “Bedfordshire and Luton Fire & Rescue Service”, with “FIRE” in mirror writing (“ERIF”) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the great questions of philosophy is “Why does anything exist?” or “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” The real answer to this question is that no one knows and no one is likely to know. I suppose the Deity might if the Deity exists Itself. Given that the universe exists why is does it embody the concept of left and right? Again, no one knows or is likely to know, or so it appears at this time.

One reason may be that if asymmetry did not exist one could probably not travel from A to B. If one started from A to travel to B in a universe without symmetry and hence without asymmetry, and someone else was travelling in the opposite direction then to pass one another the two travellers would have to pass on one side or the other of the other traveller.

English: line art drawing demonstrating asymme...
English: line art drawing demonstrating asymmetric. Suomi: Piirrustus, joka demonstroi symmetrisen ja epäsymmetrisen eron. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems to me that the concept of “side” implies the concepts of “left” and “right”. Asymmetry comes in because, to either traveller, one passes to the left or right of the oncoming traveller who passes to the right or left of you. Symmetry comes in because, to pass one another both traveller has to keep to their left or their right to successfully pass one another.

Of course, that is only true for our universe. It is conceivable that a universe could exist where symmetry and asymmetry do not exist, but it is a universe which we would, most likely, be unable to conceive of, except in the broadest terms.



cooked in this case. I'd like to try the raw v...
cooked in this case. I’d like to try the raw version even though this was good as is. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people have a hand in food preparation at some time in the day. Even those who subsist on “instant meals” will at least zap it in the microwave for the necessary amount of time. Some people however cook intricate dishes, for their own amusement or for friends and families.

Most people eat cooked food although there is somewhat of a fad for raw food at the present time. All sorts of diets are also touted as having some sort of benefit for the food conscious, all of which seem bizarre when one considers that many, many people around the world are starving.

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Cooking can be described as applied chemistry, as the aim of cooking is to change the food being cooked by treating it with heat in one way or another. All the methods treatment are given names, like “boiling”, or “baking” or “roasting”. In the distant past no doubt such treatments were hit and miss, but these days, with temperature controlled ovens and ingredients which are pretty much consistent, a reasonable result can be achieved by most people.

Chemistry Is What We Are
Chemistry Is What We Are (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d guess that the first method of cooking was to hold a piece of meat over a fire until the outside was charred and much of the inside was cooked. However, human ingenuity soon led to spit roasting and other cooking methods. A humorous account of the accidental discovery of roasting a pig was penned by Charles Lamb. In the account the discovery came as a result of an accidental setting fire to a pig sty, and consequently, as the idea of roast pork spread this led to a rash of pig sty fires, until some sage discovered that houses and sties did not need to be burnt down and it was sufficient to hang the pig over a fire.

English: Slow-roasting pig on a rotisserie
English: Slow-roasting pig on a rotisserie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d suspect that while roasting may have been invented quite early by humans, cooking in water would have come along a lot later as more technology is needed to boil anything. That is, a container would be needed and while coconut shells and mollusc shells can contain a little water, and folded leaves would do at a pinch, when humans invented pottery, the art and science of cooking was advanced immensely.

Although the foods that we eat can pretty much all be eaten raw, most people would find cooked food much more attractive. Cooked food smells nice. The texture of cooked food is different from the texture of raw food. I expect cookery experts are taught the chemical reactions that happen in cooking, but I suspect that cooking breaks down the carbohydrates, the fats, and the proteins in the food to simpler components and that we find it easier to digest these simpler chemicals.

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Maybe. That doesn’t explain why cooked food smells so much nicer than raw food. If food is left to break down by itself it smells awful, rotten, and with a few exceptions we don’t eat food that has started to decay.

Maybe the organisms that rot food produce different simpler components, or maybe the organisms produce by products that humans dislike. Other carnivores don’t seem to mind eating carrion and maybe a rotting carcass smells good to them.

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)
Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rules of cooking, the recipes have no doubt been developed by trial an error. It is likely that the knowledge was passed from cook to cook as an aural tradition initially. After all, cooking is likely to have started a long time before reading and writing were invented. Since accurate measurements were unlikely to be obtainable, much of the lore or cooking would have vague and a new cook would have to learn by cooking.

However, once the printing press was invented, after all the bibles and clerical documents had been printed, I would not be surprised to learn that the next book to be printed would have been a cook book. I’ve no evidence for this at all though!

English: Fanny Farmer Cookbook 1996 edition Fr...
English: Fanny Farmer Cookbook 1996 edition Français : Livre de la cuisson Fanny Farmer 1996 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cooking changes the texture of meat and vegetables, making them softer and easier to eat. Connective tissues in particular are released making a steak for example a lot more edible. Something similar happens to root vegetables, swedes, turnips, carrots and parsnips. These vegetables can be mashed or creamed once they are cooked, something that cannot be done to the rather solid uncooked vegetables.

Cooking is optional for some foods – berries and fruits for example. Apples can be enjoyed while raw when they have a pleasant crunch, or cooked in a pie, when they are sweet and smooth. Babies in particular love the sweet smoothness of cooked apple and for many of them puréed fruits or vegetables are their first “solid” foods.

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Chicken eggs are cooked and eaten in many different ways. The white of an egg is made partly of albumen and when this is cooked it changes from translucent, almost transparent, to an opaque white. Almost everyone will have seen this happen, when an egg is cracked into a frying pan and cooked until the clear “white” of the egg turns to opaque white of the cooked egg.

Many other items when cooked change colour to some extent, but the white of the egg is most apparent. When you pair that with bread which is slightly carbonised on the outside, covered in the coagulated fat from cow’s milk (butter) and you have a common breakfast dish – fried eggs on toast.

English: Two slices of electrically toasted wh...
English: Two slices of electrically toasted white bread on a white plate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a whole other type of cooking – baking – that relies at least partly on a chemical reaction between an alkali (baking soda or sodium bicarbonate) and an acid (often “cream of tartar” which is weakly acidic). When the two are mixed in the presence of water, carbon dioxide gas is given off, leading to gas bubbles in the dough. When the dough is cooked the bubbles are trapped inside the stiffening dough, give the baked cake the typical spongy texture.

Some cooking utilises biological reactions. When yeast, a fungus, is placed into a liquid containing sugar, it metabolises the sugar, releasing carbon dioxide, and creates alcohol. In bread making this alcohol is baked off, but it may add to the attractiveness of the smell of newly baked bread. In brewing the alcohol is the main point of the exercise, so it is retained. It may even be enhanced by distillation.

I’ve just touched on a few highlights as regards the mechanisms of cooking (and brewing!), but I’ve come to realise as I have been writing this that there are many, many other points of interest in this subject. The subject itself has a name and that name is “Molecular Gastronomy”. A grand name for a grand subject.

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The America’s Cup

There’s a competition going on in San Francisco to decide the winner of the America’s Cup. Those people who do not have an interest in yachting may not have heard of it, but it is the Superbowl of the yachting world. Currently it is being fought out between Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand. The New Zealand team currently lead 6 wins to 1. [Update: The score is now 6 – 2.]

For spectators on the shore yacht racing normally happens a long way off and with few visual clues as to what is happening and it is often next to impossible to tell who is leading and even who won the race. The yachts are visible as small white dots although the deployment of a spinnaker will swell the dots and may introduce a bit of colour, but the to-ing and fro-ing of the yachts is still difficult to decipher.

The America’s Cup is different in that technology has come to the spectators’ assistance. A view can be shown on television of the yachts as seen from a helicopter or motorboat shadowing the yachts, but it will still not be obvious who is leading, since when going upwind the yachts travel at a significant angle to their target course. At each side of the course the yachts must change direction, a procedure known as a ‘tack’. If both yachts are travelling on parallel courses it is possible for the trailing boat to appear to be leading.

So to help spectators the live view is overlaid with graphics which show each yacht’s distance from the mark (the target for this leg) or from the finish line if the leg is the last one. The graphics also show the boundaries of the course if the yachts are approaching them. The distance between the lines for the two yachts shown who is in the lead and by how much.

A graphic from an earlier America’s Cup Regatta race featuring the smaller AC45 yachts.

The graphics also show the yacht speeds though I’m not sure if that is the speed towards the mark or finish line or merely the straight line speed. Another thing that the graphics can show is any ‘bad air’ that the leading yacht is casting over the trailing yacht. The leading yacht’s sail disturbs the the air as it flows over it, and this disturbed air is less efficient at providing the trailing yacht with energy and so it tends to travel a little slower. The leading yacht is said to cover the trailing yacht and the trailing yacht will endeavour to escape the cover.

The most interesting times in a yacht race are when the vessels are rounding a mark. The graphics for this are a circle round the mark and a series of dots or blobs representing the yacht’s course, as if the yacht were dropping a bucket of dye every second. There is also a countdown clock indicating the number of seconds that one yacht is behind the other.

The two finalists
The two finalists

So there’s plenty of information about the races and it makes for fascinating viewing. (There are some people who still don’t get it and who watch it for 5 minute or so and then go and do something else, but then again, Formula 1 leaves me yawning). The course in San Francisco is very close to the shore and this does allow spectators a good view of the yachts, though I suspect that most of them will be keeping up to date via cellphones. There’s an app for it!

Race six, won by Emirates Team New Zealand
The huge number of on course spectators can be seen in the bacground

[Update: I just watched latest race. Oracle Team USA won this after a near capsize by Emirates Team New Zealand.]

The class of yacht being used in the America’s Cup in San Francisco is designated as AC72. These are huge catamarans (dual-hulled yachts) with fixed sails and full of the latest technology, computers and hydraulics. A failed battery cost Emirates Team New Zealand one race!

Oracle Team USA
Oracle Team USA (boat #2)

The yachts are spectacular in action as they rise up out of the water on hydrofoils, which reduces hull drag to nothing and allows the yachts to reach speeds of up to 50mph (44 knots). This does not come without its dangers and several of the yachts have dipped their bows into the water leading to at least two incidents where yachts have “pole-pitched” and tipped over in one case killing one of the crew. In both cases the yachts were severely damaged. Emirates Team New Zealand dropped their bows into the water in one case  but appeared in no danger of flipping over. Oracle Team USA were one of the teams whose yacht was almost destroyed  in an incident.

Oracle Team USA yacht capsizes

The yachts are filled with technology and are very technical to race, apparently, and have proved very popular in San Francisco with huge crowds turning out to watch action. Millions more are of course glued to their TV screens and cellphones. And this, below, is what it is all about.

English: The America's Cup
English: The America’s Cup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)